For 21 years, Dutton artist Dora Sealey kept private a gift of her own creative talent, a tribute to her parents and to her late sister Bess. Now, inspired by the words of her pastor, she has chosen to share that gift, her illustrated children’s story “Tree’s Hidden Gift,” with readers everywhere.
“What’s really important to me is the story behind the story,” Sealey said earlier this month during an interview at the Dutton/Teton Public Library.
The daughter of Larry and Jean Harman, Sealey grew up with her older sister, Bess, in the house that her great-grandparents built on their farm, seven miles west of Dutton.
She and Bess both went to Dutton High School. Bess graduated in 1992 and Dora in 1993. Bess, who wanted to be a schoolteacher, enrolled at Rocky Mountain College in Billings. Dora followed her there, but in October of 1993, Bess’s life was cut short in a motorcycle accident.
Dora said several incidents from her childhood, memories of her parents and her sister, served as seeds that ultimately grew into “Tree’s Hidden Gift.”
While she was in college in 1996 earning her bachelor’s degree in fine arts (with a double minor in writing and psychology), Dora was assigned to write a piece of fiction for a creative writing class. Her project for that class was “Tree’s Hidden Gift,” a touching story of love, of loss and of finding hope even when the world around you is bleak and filled with sadness.
In her story, a young couple plants a garden in the shadow of an apple tree, who is named “Tree.” The young man loses his wedding band in the garden, and the couple is heartbroken over the loss. Over the years, a new tree, the daughter of Tree, begins to grow. When the new tree bears fruit, one of the couple’s children picks an apple, and biting into it, finds the long-lost wedding band, the hidden gift that Tree gives to the family.
Her watercolor illustrations create a mood for the words that are carefully placed on each page in the book. The colors range from soft pastels that evoke maternal feelings; blue, sad colors that convey wind blowing and storm clouds gathering; and then bright, vivid colors showing the happy ending, depicting a “love plant” with a bloom shaped like a heart.
The theme of the book, Dora said, is that as you go through life, you lose things, but you can have hope that you will find what was lost or something better. “It’s about commitment and the test of time,” she said. “This October, my mom and dad will be married for 50 years. It was 25 years ago in October that my family lost Bess.”
She said she wants readers to understand that they have the choice to make something great out of something difficult, to choose to have hope or not to have hope. Of course, she hopes that readers choose hope.
Dora has read the story to students in a number of area schools and has asked primary students to say, in one or two words, what this book is about. “Most of them say love and every now and then hope,” she said. “One particular little third-grade girl said, ‘What you lose you don’t actually lose, you find it in the end.’ I thought that was very profound for a 9- or 10-year-old.”
Dora considers herself an artist first and a writer second, so it was a no-brainer for her that she would illustrate the book, using beautiful images rendered in watercolor. The book was displayed as part of her senior thesis for her fine arts degree.
The seeds of “Tree’s Hidden Gift” were planted in Dora’s life well before she put this story down on paper. The character of Tree in the story is named after Bess’s first baby doll.
The imagery of two trees on a farmstead near a garden comes directly from the Harman farm, where her parents planted a garden near two crab apple trees and her father lost his wedding band in that garden.
When Dora was 10, she was helping her mom in this garden and she found her father’s wedding band — 15 years after he had lost it. “That was the seed that was planted, but I didn’t know it yet,” she said.
The very nature of trees themselves inspired her. Trees are so strongly rooted, she said. They leaf out, they go through changing seasons, they bear fruit for people, they are “such strong symbols for life.”
Also, she said, the beautiful landscape of rural Montana with the green fields, the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the gorgeous big sky inspired her as well. “How can Montana not inspire you,” she asked.
She said “Tree’s Hidden Gift” was being created in her head for a long time, but she finally put it on paper in 1996, as a tribute to her parents’ long-lasting love and in memory of the kind, sweet, loving person Bess was and the years they spent playing under the trees on the farm.
But she didn’t consider publishing the story. She considered it a private thing, part of her inner heart. She shared it with her parents and later her husband, but no one else.
Dora graduated from college in 1997 and worked as a picture framer and assistant for a Montana artist for one year. Then she worked as an assistant to an English teacher in Japan for another year.
One month before she left for Japan, however, she met Tyler Sealey from Roundup through mutual friends. They conducted a long-distance romance, and when she returned, they lived in Bozeman while he finished his education degree. After they were married, they lived in Lewistown for a year and then in Roundup, where Tyler taught and coached. They lived there for six years until they returned to Dutton, and Tyler started taking over the farm, where they now raise winter wheat, spring wheat and pulse crops.
Dora has been a busy young mom since moving to Dutton. She has worked as a substitute teacher, she has done painting projects at the Dutton swimming pool and at the library (where she honored the memory of Nash Coffman, 11, who died in an accident). She and Tyler redid the Dutton/Brady Schools sign, and she consults on interior design.
“I would call myself the ‘creative problem solver,’” she said, adding that with the couple’s children (Gavin, 14, Chloe, 12, and Rowen, 8) all in school, they stay pretty busy following the children’s activities.
The final nudge that Dora needed to pursue publishing her story came in the spring of 2017 at an evening service at the Harvest Bible Church. “Our pastor said, ‘Everything you do, do to the glory of God,’” she said. That made her think about how important her faith was in the wake of her sister’s death. Her pastor’s words inspired her to honor God and to honor her parents by getting the book published.
She contacted several publishers who assist self-publishing authors and Dorance Publishing was the first to respond. She worked with them from April 2017 to March 2018, working through the design of the book (it is styled in a vertical format like the original, which was done in a tablet of artists’ paper); selecting the cover design, the font for the type and more.
She compared the process to going through a pregnancy, and said she had to work hard at first to trust the professionals at Dorance with her precious story.
She just signed off on the final design of the book and it is in publication now. She has given copies of “Tree’s Hidden Gift” to the libraries in Choteau and Dutton and to the school libraries in Power and Dutton and she hopes some bookstores will start carrying it. Readers can order the book from Dorance at dorancepublishing.com. Those who want signed copies can get their book and then email her at email@example.com to arrange a time and place for her to sign the book.
Once her story was published, she read it to her own children. She hopes that this book will inspire children to think about writing. “My goal is to inspire young writers also,” she said, adding that she encourages children to write down the stories in their lives and think about illustrating their own books.
“Tree’s Hidden Gift” may not be the only story Dora has to tell. She already knows that her future books will be done in the same spiral-notebook style. “The wheels are turning,” she said.